Tzu Chi Foundation’s recent dental mission proves that anyone can receive seeds of goodness, even those in conflict with the law.
Ten Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) dentists on October 18 provided free dental care and reading glasses to the inmates of San Juan City Jail. Despite the makeshift clinic no bigger than an office suite, compassion in the form of tooth extractions and oral cleaning benefitted a total of 115 residents of the jail’s male dormitory.
A further 84 male and 53 female residents received free reading glasses, in addition to availing dental services.
The mission marks the fourth time Tzu Chi has provided love and care for people in conflict with the law. Almost eight years ago, in celebration of Tzu Chi’s 200th Mobile Dental Service, TIMA dentists and Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan dedicated their time and energy for the benefit of 147 inmates. A distribution of hygienic packs followed, with a further 250 receiving bath soaps, towels, toothpaste, and a pair of slippers.
While the latest dental mission is evidently smaller in scale, the degree of love and care given to the inmates has barely diminished. More than the health of the inmates, bearing lack of access to proper hygiene, Tzu Chi volunteer Carmen Sy wants to let them know that they deserve love and care despite their circumstances.
“Everyone commits mistakes. Everyone commits sins. But every heart has that pure, innate nature, as what the Buddha has told us. So I want to see in them, every time I come here, spreading the seeds of Great Love to their dry hearts,” Sy shares.
“If we have this chance to motivate them to do good, then they will become good examples to our society. They’ve been here for several years now, some looking forward to think of ways to change. And we want to be a pathway, an instrument to carry the good ideals of Tzu Chi,” adds Sy.
Although detained, the residents of San Juan City Jail are not yet convicted of their respective crimes. They await their sentence by the country’s judiciary, where a guilty verdict will see them moved to a more permanent penitentiary. Nevertheless, social stigma toward those locked up behind bars extends to the jail’s detainees.
That’s why inmates like Roger, not his real name, are but surprised to see the minority that still treats them like family.
“Even if we can’t accept the fact behind our detainment, we feel relieved to see groups like Tzu Chi share their love,” says Roger.
Life behind bars is by no means a walk in the park. If the venue for the mobile dental clinic is no bigger than an office suite, then the cells housing dozens of residents are much smaller. With so many within so little space, it’s no surprise if some residents sleep half-naked in response to the unbearable heat. Also, in such living conditions, the spread of disease is certain.
Treatment for toothaches, for instance, depends on whatever they can find. Judy, not her real name, settles with water mixed with salt to gargle as her means of easing the pain, even if it’s not a permanent cure.
“Before, we could only ask painkillers like mefenamic acid from the infirmary. But if there’s none, we bear with gargling water mixed with salt,” Judy narrates, adding that medicine is hard to get as they can be easily misused and abused.
Frank, not his real name, adds that the absence of an in-house practitioner complicates matters.
“We often bear with our toothaches because the jail doesn’t have a resident dentist. That’s why it’s a relief to see [Tzu Chi] offer a free clinic here,” he says.
Basic needs such as healthcare are hard to come by, even with limited support from the local government. This prompts Senior Jail Officer 1 (SJO1) Manuel Flores, Jr. to tap into charitable institutions like Tzu Chi for help.
“[The inmates] couldn’t believe that Tzu Chi Foundation would return. Through the affinity formed, they couldn’t believe that the aid they received would extend beyond dental care,” says SJO1 Flores, the facility’s welfare and development officer.
The road that would lead Tzu Chi to include city jails among its beneficiaries for dental missions began with Flores. A jail guard at the time, he became privileged to be among hundreds of patients of a medical mission in Barangay Tatalon, Quezon City. Inspired by Tzu Chi’s deeds, he made arrangements for the inmates to benefit from the same compassion. This gave birth to the jail’s first dental mission in 2010.
“On behalf of the San Juan City Jail warden, we would like to extend our gratitude to Tzu Chi Foundation. We congratulate you and we hope that you don’t grow tired of initiating medical missions in jail facilities,” SJO1 Flores says.
TIMA dentists and Tzu Chi volunteers set up the makeshift clinic in the city jail’s common room, which is no larger than an office at the Jing Si Hall. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Tzu Chi volunteer Carmen Sy urges detainees to sow seeds of goodness as a way to repent for their transgressions. According to jail officials, about 70 percent of the jail’s population is detained for illegal drugs. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Tzu Chi Foundation has SJO1 Manuel Flores, Jr. to thank for allowing the dental mission to benefit the inmates. Having benefitted from a medical mission years ago, Flores thought about bringing Tzu Chi’s love and care to those behind bars. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
This inmate leads by example by donating loose change to Tzu Chi. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Apart from dental services, inmates also received free reading glasses. A total of 115 inmates received free dental care, with a further 137 receiving reading glasses. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
A dental aide holds a light over a dentist’s work on an inmate’s set of teeth. Most of the work done by TIMA dentists involves tooth extraction. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
At the jail’s female dorms, Tzu Chi volunteer Carmen Sy briefs the female inmates about Tzu Chi’s work of compassion. A total of 270 males and 81 females are detained at the San Juan City Jail. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
A female detainee tests out her new pair of reading glasses. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
This inmate tests out her reading glasses by reading a pamphlet about Tzu Chi. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
The 53 female recipients raise their reading glasses out of gratitude to Tzu Chi. For them, it’s a relief that someone still treats them as they would treat family. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】